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How to study Chaucer

Rob Pope, Macmillan


About Chaucer the man
He was a man of the world as well as a man of letters.
He kept a high personal profile and a low political one.
Chaucers England is not the whole story (the Peasants e!olt gets "ust one
disparaging mention in the whole of Chaucers work#.
He was a man in a mans world.
About Chaucer the narrator
He has the tendency to ramble on about almost anything.
He seems a bit stupid or na$!e% but
&n fact he is rather cle!er% and
'nows more than he pretends.
He need not be approached cautiously as
He has a basically warm and open nature.
Chaucer in the e(ams
How does he produce a sense of !ariety and comple(ity in his work) (mi(ing his
materials * plays the world of books and stories against the obser!ed world of
reality * characters seen from different points of !iews#
How do narrators complicate their stories) (+here is Chaucer the narrator and
there are fictional narrators#
How does Chaucer produce his humour and what purpose does it ser!e)
( incongruity#
How does Chaucer produce a sense of !ariety in his style) (fle(ibility and !ariety of
the speaking !oice * undelying order of the !erse form * formal% collo,uial style#
-tudying the General Prologue
.hat kind of work is it)
Estates satire ( a sur!ey of the !arious classes of late medie!al society * the
characters are there to be rediculed or censured% and occasionally admired#
.hat is it about)
At the centre of the poem there is a highly !aried and in many ways disorderly
!ision of humanity
Variety within unity, disorder within order characterises the poems shape.
Another way of putting this is to say that there is a huge contrast or tension/ lo!e
of the world versus lo!e of 0od. 1n the one hand there is the teeming !ariety of
world and humanity2 on the other% the unity and order of the di!ine scheme.
Characterisation
Characterisation can be re!ealed by asking simple ,uestions
How does he or she contribute to the sense of !ariety within the poem)
How orderly or disorderly is the characters beha!iour)
&s he3she moti!ated by lo!e of the world or by lo!e of 0od)
0rouping
&. +he 'night% his son the -,uire and the 4eoman.
&&. +he Prioress% the 5onk% the 6riar% a nun and three priests (religious establishment#.
&&&. +he 5erchant% the Clerk% the 7awyer% the 6ranklin% the fi!e guildsmen and their
cook% the -hipman% the 8octor% and the .ife of 9ath (the middle:class#.
&;. +he Parson and the Ploughman (the lower orders#.
;. A e!e and a 5iller% 3 A -omnour and a Pardoner (the rogues#.
+he members of the groups are variations on a theme% e. g. the theme in the
religious group is what holds them together * the ways in which all three fall short
of their religious roles. +he !ariations are what distinguishes the pilgrims within
each group.
Conte(t
Chaucer does not put representati!es of the !ery rich and the !ery poor.
1
E!erything is seen from a court point of view.
Chaucer adopted a na$!e% simpleton narrator in order to a!od gi!ing offence.
The Wife of Baths Prologue and Tale
&t is made up of two elements/ a sermon and a confession
+he .ife of 9ath clearly sets out to gi!e a full:blown sermon to the other pilgrims
with all the traditional trimmings% e. g. biblical ,uotations% illustrati!e stories and
direct appeals to the audience% as well as a long moralised story (e(emplum#.
Her sermon is mock or anti:sermon since her preaching is a defence of womens
powers within marriage% as well as attack on male clerics.
-he also gi!es an intimate account of her life and lo!es to date.
+he main issue is womens power.
He first three husbands are grouped together as types rather than indi!iduals.
+he other two husbands are more indi!idualised.
Howe!er% all fi!e husbands illustrate the same basic point/ ich or poor% old or young%
stupid or cle!er% they are all e(amples of powerless husbands% men whom the .ife
finally succeeded in taming.
+he knight in her story is a character type/ a lusty bachelor. +he significance of these
characters lies in the ideas they represent.
+he old wyf has no name and is not described in detail% which makes her a type as
well rather than indi!idual.
1n the one hand the .ife of 9ath comes across as an asserti!e and independent:minded
woman. 1n the other hand she is also aggressi!e and blatantly dishonest% and freely
admits that she herself has often told lies.
+here is a per!ading irony in the story whose upshot is that it presents how women
should and should not be.
+here is a fundamental tension in the .ifes nature. -he is both amorous and aggressi!e
and it is the constant mo!ement between these two states which makes her
particularly formidable. .e might say that she functions on a lo!e:hate principle.
.e should also remind oursel!es that the ultimate narrator is not a woman but a man.
Perhaps it is "ust a piece of male propaganda designed to draw attention to the
potential independence and asserti!eness of women * only to undermine their position
by re!ealing that the .ife is really a rogue.
Historically medie!al marriages were fre,uently fraught and sometimes !iolent.
5arriages of con!enience were much more common.
.ife:beating was allowed as long as you did not maim or kill your wife.
Economic power was !ested on men.
.ith all this in mind the beha!iour of the .ife becomes understandable.
-he gets economic power of her own by a combination of cunning and e(ploiting of
her main resource% her body.
-he can be seen as an e(aggerated representati!e of medie!al women.
The Merchants Tale
&t is a mi(ture of two main story types/ the court romance and the fablieau.
&t is an e(ploration of lo!e from different points of !iew.
+here is idealised lo!e% straightforward se(% di!ine lo!e and human lo!e.
+here is a tension or conflict in the knights character. &t is not clear whether he wants
to get married for pious reasons% to a!oid sin% or simply to ha!e a woman at his disposal
all the time. 5arriage is seen as something spiritual and acceptable% but it is also seen
as an arrangement whereby more sinister and selfish forces can come to play.
+he o!erall impression of the knight is of a man locked into his own !iew of things.
Almost e!erything is seen through the eyes and mind of the old knight.
+he passage of the bedroom scene is full of images of food% drink and animals% as
well as a knife% which add to our sense of <anuary and his attitude to lo!e.
Howe!er% the relationship of 5ay and 8amian does not contain any spiritual aspect to
the idea of personal relationships.
2
+he conclusion of the Merchants Tale is comple(.
&n the wrangle between Pluto and Proserpine Pluto is upholding the traditional !iew
of women as deceitful and sinful% while Proserpine is defending the se( against
male propaganda
&t seems that 4outh and Age are finally reconciled but only after 4outh and 4outh
ha!e got together.
&s <anuarys sudden return of his sight in some ways symbolic% suggesting that he
has both literally and metaphorically seen the light)
!"R# $%&#'( T CH)%C'R, Helen Cooper
The Wife of Bath in the $eneral Prologue
.omen were often treated as an estate to themsel!es in estates literature
A homiletic analysis of the .ife of 9ath would include pride% wrath% en!y% immodesty%
lust% and curiositas.
E!erything about her seems too much% or too many% e. g. fi!e husbands% ten:pound
-unday headdress% three !isits to <erusalem.
+he fact that she has tra!elled a lot points to the fact that wi!es pro!erbially used
pilgrimages as a co!er for other acti!ities.
-he owes her place among the middle:class group most ob!iously because of her skill in
cloth:making. Howe!er% she is first introduced% not as a cloth:maker% but as a wife2 and
matrimony is her main profession. -he is an e(pert in the olde daunce of lo!e. +his
has nothing to do with the fin amor of the -,uire% but with the tricks and con,uests of
se(ual pursuit.
Her fi!e husbands are a set of her attributes% on a par with her -unday co!erchiefs
The Wife of Baths Prologue
-tructure
Her speech mo!es from the general to the increasingly particular.
+he first ma"or section is the summary of her arguments in fa!our of marriage in
general and multiple marriages in particular.
&n the second section% on the history of her marriages% she starts with her account of
her first three husbands% who are treated as a conglomerate.
&n the third ma"or di!ision her marriage with <ankin turns from a debate into a battle of
man !s. woman.
+hemes
&t focuses on the ,uestion of the nature of women2 the nature of the womans role in
marriage.
-he turns it into a "ustification% first of se(% then of multiple marriages.
Her defence of her way of life comes from simply admitting all the charges but refusing
to see anything bad in them. Her Prologue seems to be a misogynist male te(t rewritten
from the female point of !iew.
+hree themes emerge distinctly from this/ se(uality% beha!iour in marriage% and
dominance * of women in general% but mostly her own.
Her argument concerning the picture of the lion makes the reader ponder on the the
antifeminists e,ual readiness to bend truth for their own purposes.
-he appeals to the whole area of festi!e liberation. Her assertion of the bodily fact is
an appeal to the half of human e(perience that cannot be disallowed by official
doctrines on the greater importance of the spirit o!er the flesh. -he is the Carni!al%
which denies the official cultures claim to represent the whole truth and nothing but
the truth * not countering it with any e,ual claim to absoluteness% but by insisting on
the relati!e% the irre!erent% the earthly.
3
+he ,uestion of so!ereignity in marriage is only one of the many raised by the Prologue.
&t is itself part of a bigger ,uestion * are women a 0ood thing% or not)
A rather different issue is the ,uestion of te(t !ersus gloss% of literal meaning against
the interpretation it can be twisted to fit. +he .ifes use of glossing to make her te(ts
ser!e her own se(ual inclinations intrudes in metaphor to the se( act itself. =>?@:ABC
The Wife of Baths Tale
0enre
&t borders between folktale * e!en fairy:tale * and romance. 9y gi!ing her a romance%
Chaucer adds another side to her character/ she is incurably romantic2 it also offers a
fulfillment not only of the .ifes conscious desires for mastery and a young !irile
husband% but of the desire she can e(press only as a regret% for the restoring of her lost
youth and beauty.
&t is also a narrati!e e(emplum to illustrate the argument de!eloped discursi!ely in her
Prologue.
-tructure
+here are three digressions that ha!e little to do with either the story or the theme of
so!ereignity in marriage.
+he first% the passage of satire on friars% is primarily a cue for the following tale%
the 6riars and her response to his interruption.
+he second% the story of 5idas% is a digression for its own sake% a match for the
ramblings of the .ifes Prologue.
+he third% the gentillesse speech% is not strictly a digression2 it shifts the balance of
the tale from story for its own sake towards the story for the sake of a moral.
+hemes
+he central theme is the ,uestion of what women most desire2 the hags pressing of
se(ual attentions on the unwilling knight% and his final handing o!er of free choice to
her% are the comic aspects of the same theme.
+he dis,uisition on gentillesse is important2 +he loathly lady is out to teach gentillesse
to her husband% but most of all to assert her own claim to the gentillesse of !irtue% to
assert a human ideal transcending se(ual difference "ust as it transcends distinction of
rank or wealth.
+he stress to inner !irtue has a congruence with the !ery end of the tale. &t concludes
not with the womans being boss% but with the romance achie!ement of blisse and%
most surprisingly% with obedience. +his% in turn% is in marked contrast to the male
submission to female se(uality desired by the .ife in her concluding prayer.
&R*+ &* TH' W&"' " B)TH( T),'
+ony -lade (Casebook -eries#
-lade takes 6. 0. +ownsheds argument that the tale illustrates the character of 8ame
Alison% and that moreo!er the tale cannot be properly understood unless we remember
that it is Alison who is telling the story% which is the e(pression of her hopes and
dreams. -lade claims that it is important to remember that although the tale is an
e(pression of the .ifes character% it is ultimately told by Chaucer himself.
At times Alison is commenting ironically on the story she is telling while at other times
Chaucer himself is commenting ironically on her !iews and reactions.
-he is telling the story because she wishes to make a moral point which has rele!ance
in the world as she sees it% but in telling it in the way she says it she e(poses much of
her own character.
&n the .ifes eyes it is the domination of the man o!er the woman which is the knights
real offence% and it is for this that he has to undergo his test.
'ing Arthur is a shadowy figure who gi!es in to his wifes demands.
4
+he lesson he has to be taught is hardly a profoundly moral one2 the ensuing search for
an answer is described !ery much in terms of the .ifes own !alues% and she is unable
to keep her own !iews out of the discussion.
+he humour in the bed scene consists of the fact that the traditional roles ha!e been
re!ersed/ it is the man who wails before the prospect of making lo!e.
At the end of the tale an element of irony is surely present in the effusion of my lo!e%
wyf so deere% and particularly in wise * an irony which Chaucer intends but which
neither the .ife nor the hag themsel!es detect.
The Merchants Tale
Prologue
&t specifies the 5erchant as teller% and gi!es him an appropriate moti!e in his own
personal e(perience for warning against women and marriage.
He picks up the !ictim:husbands !iewpoint of wepyng and waylyng
0enre
+he tale of <anuary and 5ay is a fabliau% with the standars ingredients of adultery and
the tricking of authority.
Chaucer% howe!er% complicates the matter in different ways/ the discursi!e opening
suggests the story should be read as an e(emplum2 the e(planation of why women
always ha!e a ready answer suggests a folktale pourquoi2 the characters of knight% lady%
and amorous s,uire% the trappings of gardens and gods% the courtly !ocabulary% and the
parody of a happy ending suggest a romance.
-tructure
+he opening discourses on marriage ser!e to generalise the story/ there is the
sacramental and mythological dimensions of marriage% which is contrasted by the
ensuing account of <anuarys se(ual fantasies and the anti:erotic crudity of the
actuality.
5ays adultery% by contrast% is gi!en a personal moti!ation/ she is unfaithful not% or not
only% because that is the nature of wi!es% but because of the nature of her husband.
5ost importantly% from the !ery first lines% <anuarys wilful refusal to see clearly is
made to seem ine!itable.
+hemes
+hat the 5erchants tale will be about marriage is self:e!ident from the moment he
promises to tell about wi!es cursednesse in his Prologue.
+he theme is carried through in the +ale in the !aried !iews of marriage as paradise or
purgatory% the reference to the .ife of 9ath% the discussion between Pluto and
Proserpina on biblical !iews on women.
9ehind all this% is the <anuarys self:deception% his fantasie. He has opted for moral
blindness from the start% and the reco!ery of his physical sight at the end only confirms
the loss.
6rom the opening lines marriage is talked about in terms of self:deception/
+he enconium of marriage e(pands on both the holiness and the dotage.
&t insistently carries its arguments to logical absurdity.
-tories are half:told.
+he effect is not simply destructi!e for the biblical conte(t but it also ser!es to show
up the imperfection of the narrators own sight. Chaucer makes it clear that there
other !isions that the tale refuses to see% e. g. it ne!er occurs to the narrator that 5ay
is gi!en no option in the choice of her coltissh husband.
5
+he readers pity for 5ay% who is bought with scrit and bond is undermined at the !ery
moment it should be most intense =A@>DC because Chaucers good wi!es would ne!er
indulge in such implied comparisons% or cash e!aluation% of se(ual e(perience.
Howe!er% the detail of the narration% the choice of words and images% instists that
<anuary is responsible for his own downfall% as e!erything happens is ironically
prophesied in his own words and actions.
Eone the less% the tale is not content with the message that it is all <anuarys folly. 5ay
stands for all the women in being gi!en a ,uickanswer by Proserpina. +he elements of
garden% couple% tempter% and tree ne!er become allegorical% howe!er2 they insist that
the story of <anuary and 5ay has happened before and is going to happen throughout
time.
+he ideas offered by the tale * of romantic lo!e2 of marriage as reflected in Christ and
his Church% the -ong of -ongs% or an old mans fantasiFing2 of the harmonious ending of
romance * all pro!e to be mere delusions% not for <anuary alone% but because in the
world presented in the tale ideals can ha!e no reality.
+he +ale in Conte(t
E!ery discussion of wi!es and marriage in the Tales enlarges to encompass the ,uestion
of whether women in general are good or bad% are modelled on the ;irgin or E!e.
Another different conte(t is offered by the Tales themsel!es. 6or there are not only
sinful women and !irtuous women2 there are also good and bad husbands.
&t is striking% howe!er% that Chaucer almost ne!er generalises about men e(cept to use
them as contrast in his fre,uent sweeping generalisations about women.
-tyle
+he generic contradiction that characterises the +ale% and its insistence that the ideal
is no more than a cosmetic sham% is con!eyed principally through sharp disruptions of
style.
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